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Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Wednesday 30 November 2011

3 More Additive Manufacturing Machines - Large & Small, New & Not so Much

It seems that everyone has been waiting for Euromold to unleash their new additive machines. After the two new 3D printers I reported on yesterday, there are three more I am having to wrap my head around today. These three are all very different in their own right and they are each very exciting. Exciting for me, because I just love this stuff, and five of them in two days, well, anyone that knows me will be able to imagine!! And, more to the point, exciting for creative and industrial designers, engineers and manufacturers. These new machines are truly fulfilling the evolutionary promise of additive technology and not just for the super rich — right across the board. Indeed two out of the three are 'hybrid' machines, that is, systems that take all the advantages of additive technology and make it even more productive by combining it with other technologies.

A quick overview of each:

The FreeForm Pico is a straight up 3D printer — it's cute courtesy of it's very small and tidy footprint of just 22 cm and its attractive facade, but boy does it pack a punch. The resolution that it offers is 37.5 ┬Ám pixels in UF mode. Asiga — the company behind this printer — defines the process as "sliding separation" and it uses an LED light source to create each layer of the part build. The price point for the Pico is $6990, which means that this manufacturing quality machine is available to small and medium sized companies in a range of industries that have been waiting for the quality they need at a price they can justify.

Then there is the machine with no name! It's a big one. And it is from TNO, a company with a long history of working with additive technologies in terms of R&D. The tag line is "Fast and Flexible Production" and it "is the embodiment of TNO's vision for additive technologies."This is because the sole selling point is not just the additive process (deposition, by the way), rather it is a machine focused on speedy, quality production; incorporating other processes, such as pick-and-place robots and surface finishing equipment. This means that the machine can operate continuously, even with multiple materials, and produce a hundred different parts extremely quickly, we're talking minutes here, not hours or days! The production machine is flexible and can be tailored to fit any application.

And finally, although not entirely new, a true hybrid machine — additive & subtractive — the Lumex Avance 25, got some deserved attention today at Euromold. This one is from Matsuura, a Japanese stalwart in the industrial machining market, and it is a combination of metal laser sintering with 3D milling. Looking at the history of the company, they have been working on hybrid technology since 2002. Indeed the first machine, the M-PHOTON 25C' won the 33rd Japan Industrial Technology Grand Prize in 2004. This machine got noticed in Japan four years ago, but little has been heard in Western territories. It's really great to see this changing. IMO, hybrid machines are what will make additive processes truly mainstream within industry (as opposed to 3D printers for consumers) — and I've held that view for a few years since talking to Mike Ayre at a TCT event, when he succinctly and convincingly presented on this very topic. I have remained convinced since.

It just remains for me to tip my hat at Mr Duncan Wood, for his top three tips from Euromold 2011. Thx DW - well tweeted sir!!

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Two New Kids for 3D Printing

There are two new entry level 3D printers hitting the market — Printrbot (no, that's not a typo) & Fabbster.

They both look very interesting and will be competing in the same space, which is a different discussion all on its own!

The Printrbot is a kickstarter project that was looking for funding. It's hit the headlines because a week in and the project had surpassed 600% of its funding aims. This in itself is a great achievement, but it also speaks volumes about the awareness of 3D printing and the belief that this technology is going to make a huge difference. The printer itself is still only in the beta stage of development. The new funding will take it into the realms of a commercial product, and the Printrbot website is current, honest & with no small hint of national pride as it sets out the aims and ambitions of the project.

Here's a flavour:

"One particularly exciting development is the opportunity to partner with an established local manufacturer of educational and DIY projects - including robots and whatnot.  We are in talks to partner in a move that would change the world of consumer 3D printing forever - bringing 3D printers to the masses at a price never before seen.  It's a pencil sketch on the back of a napkin at this point, but some really great things came off the back of a napkin, ya know."

There have been no price point numbers quoted at yet though.

Printrbot website: http://printrbot.com/

And then the Fabbster was unveiled today at Euromold. This one has been at least a couple of years in development, and I have heard whispers about it on & off, with increasing noise more recently as the launch approached. Coming from the Sintermask and Netfabb stable, this 3d printer has a good pedigree and it goes without saying that the software will be very strong, and it all runs from a standard PC, which does move it towards mass use. The quoted price point is €1000, with first deliveries scheduled Q1 2012.

Fabbster website: http://www.fabbster.com/

Both of these 3D printers are also citing that ease of construction (time & effort) are a novel selling point. Indeed this has been problem for 3D printer kits. And if this corner has been turned, then the market space will increase. For mass use, they have to be quick and simple to install and start running.

Monday 21 November 2011

The 3D Printing Landscape Changed Dramatically Today

Not to overlook everything that has gone before, 3D Systems has announced its largest — and most significant — acquisition by far today, namely Z Corporation, arguably the most dominant vendor in the personal 3D printing sector.

My past blog posts that have mentioned 3D Systems have had mixed reactions, in the main supportive but with the occasional blasting, and in one case, a lost project. But hey-ho, that's life. I'm entitled to my opinions and I will defend that principle until I write my last word. However, taking a step back, I have to concede that my posts have been all about the company and strategy, with very little mention of the technologies. 3D Systems was founded on Stereolithography (SLA), indeed the company developed and commercialised this process in 1987. And one of the company's earliest acquisitions was DTM, which brought Selective Laser Sintering within 3D System's remit. These two technologies are two of the four earliest additive manufacturing processes, the others being Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) developed, commercialised and still belonging to Stratasys; and Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM), which was developed by Helisys and died a death in the 90's until resurrected in a different form by MCor a few of years back.

So, why the history lesson? Well, as the shock waves reverberated across the 3D printing industry — and I confess my chin hit my chest at precisely 3.15 GMT when I read the original post from ZCorp and subsequently the press releases from both ZCorp & 3D Systems, and it stayed there as I tried to investigate a little further — a number of interesting theories emerged. It should be noted that ZCorp was unable to comment beyond the information in the press release. By far the most striking theory, for me anyway, came from Randall Newton (@gfxspeakRSN) who said, and I quote "3D Systems has to grow or die. Stratasys/HP is going to be a monster. That's IMHO" I wasn't the only one to see the truth in that opinion, and the more I thought about it, the more I could see how this has been developing for years.

Historically, it has been developing since the very beginning. 3D Systems and Stratasys have always been the two big names in Rapid Prototyping and subsequently Additive Manufacturing and now 3D printing, with superior processes (along with DTM until it was acquired, and EOS still). They have always been in competition, and now it seems like this competition is heating up more than ever before. However, since the advent of the 3D printing synonym, which has been so positive for the whole industry and mainstream awareness, these two companies have implemented very different strategies. Stratasys, after the initial HP announcement, which, incidentally, created a similar furore as was seen today, has quietly gone about its business, but it has occurred to me from time to time that with the power of HP behind it there has to be something serious bubbling beneath the surface. Randall's comment today brought that to the fore once again. 3D Systems on the other hand has gone for broke on the media front line, with a constant stream of acquisitions. It seems, however, that these two companies will continue to compete on a global and greatly increased scale. Personally I think this is great news. There are some concerned voices, G. Sachs on the RP-ML is an example, that worry that this deal is "really consolidating the market into 2-3 players." 

I don't see it this way — well not yet anyway — it may get to that if the acquisitions continue. There is still a wide range of additive processes from independent vendors available on the market and keeping the competition alive. At the top end of the market there are the metal processes — DMLS (EOS), EBM (Arcam), LENS (Optomec), Laser Cusing (Concept Laser), and SLM (Renishaw, previously MTT) — these certainly have had a huge impact on additive manufacturing applications and will remain competitive. I am very optimistic to see what Renishaw does with SLM in particular! Also, at the low end of the market there are a host of vendors — some strong, some not so much and some too new to tell. But enough of them to keep the competition alive. In the mid range also there are still some very strong players — Objet, Envisiontec, Fcubic & Mcor.

So what does Z Corporation bring to the 3D Systems Corporation that it didn't have before. Well, Z Corp's greatest assets in terms of its 3D printing technology are the full colour capabilities in producing models and the price/performance ratio. In addition, this acquisition brings a whole scanning/digitising brand with it in the form of the Zscanners; not to mention Contex Group (the holding company that is selling Z Corporation) is also selling VIDAR Systems Corporation to 3DS. Vidar is an optical imaging technology company that specialises in dental and medical imaging, which will allow 3D Systems to drill down much deeper into these vertical markets and offer an appealing & comprehensive range of products & services.

Furthermore, beyond the technology itself, Z Corporation is, I would say, the best known 3D printing brand (remember the wrench video), with excellent reseller channels, good turnover and a very impressive client list — all of which will further strengthen 3D System's balance sheet. The cash outlay is steep, $137 million, but initial reports suggest that the 2010 Zcorp revenue will be immediately credited to 3D Systems once the deal is completed.

Questions are being asked about branding and identity, and Deelip Menezes, himself a recent acquisition of 3DS, has indicated that ZCorp will probably continue to function as it does now, just under the 3D Systems banner, with little more than a logo change. Other recent acquisitions would back this up — Bits from Bytes (BfB) and Freedom of Creation (FoC) are both doing this.

My one serious concern (or maybe I should be a tad more optimistic) is that ZCorporation is a company with an excellent marketing strategy and engaging personnel. I'm not going to go over old ground here, but I really really hope that doesn't change. In fact, I would be delighted, truly happy, to see 3D Systems utilise this particular asset across the whole corporation!

Monday 14 November 2011

Holidays are Coming — And this year the lights in my house will be 3D Printed

Anyone that knows me well knows that I am a sucker for all things pretty and sparkly. And anyone that reads this blog is aware that I am pretty passionate about all things 3D printing. 

So you can just imagine how I am when both of these things converge ......

......which is exactly what happened today when my 3D printed Christmas lights arrived.

They are GORGEOUS. The concept was developed by Jonathan Rowley at Digits 2 Widgits who x-rayed and digitally manipulated the scan of an alder cone he found near his office. 

Some images:

Now all I need are some matching tree decorations, but I need to prepare my credit card, I saw some at .MGX

Wednesday 2 November 2011

The Future is Green, but It is Happening Now Too

Fabaloo raised an important issue for 3D Printing a couple of days ago with its post entitled "3D Printing is a Cleantech Innovation". Outlining how the move to a personal manufacturing model in the future will greatly reduce the carbon footprint of manufactured goods — the post highlights the favourable effects of this model on the environment while acknowledging the challenges of achieving this.

The full post from Fabbaloo can be read here: http://tinyurl.com/6z9zdhe

This is indeed one of the greatest potential outcomes of the transition to personal manufacturing, but it is still a way off. Looking to the future in a positive way is a good thing, anyone that read my last post will know I do it myself. But this post got me thinking about what difference 3D printing is making now in terms of sustainability and clean technology.

There are plenty of positives, particularly for industries that are currently viewed negatively for imposing high carbon footprints with their products. Additive Manufacturing processes — particularly the metal ones — can make a big difference in this area. There are many industrial applications that require the manufacture of highly engineered, low-volume parts, in the aerospace sector for example. All of the major aerospace companies are now taking additive manufacturing very seriously.

Additive Manufacturing offers them an alternative to traditional methods of manufacture for parts of this nature, providing real environmental efficiencies in terms of both the manufacturing process itself (utilising 90% of standard materials rather than machining it away) and throughout the part's operating life through lighter and stronger design.

Stronger is great, but lighter is even better. The lighter part will require less energy to become airbourne. Less energy means reduced fuel consumption and therefore reduced emissions. Over the life time of an aircraft this equates to hundreds of thousands of pounds of pounds saved in fuel, another great advantage for the airlines. Translate this to a full fleet of aircraft and it really is a no brainer. Little wonder that EADS, Rolls Royce, BAe Systems and Boeing are all so excited by this technology and pushing the boundaries at the high end of the market.

So even with one eye on the future of 3DP/AM, which is bright, there are clear environmental benefits that the technology is contributing to the world now. And more applications like this emerge all the time.